Infrastructure is the backbone of our economy. How we get to work and school, how much our groceries cost, and how high our utility bills are all depend on accessible, high-quality infrastructure. Much has been said about the need to revitalize our deteriorating national infrastructure. It’s all true. Our roads and bridges are crumbling.
Meanwhile, we face a clear climate crisis. Extreme weather events are happening more frequently and more powerfully, wreaking havoc on our transportation infrastructure to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars each year.
When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, the subways flooded with corrosive seawater. Six years later, repairs are still underway to return service to normal. Sandy also washed out low-lying roads, limiting the ability of emergency personnel to respond to calls . These same roads remain just as vulnerable to another big flooding event.
Sandy gave us proof that with a little extra planning, the federal government can help save lives, livelihoods, and taxpayer dollars. A new, more resilient bridge connecting Delaware coastal communities that had just been built to replace a bridge from the 1960s — the Indian River Inlet Bridge -— was able to withstand the power of Sandy, while the old bridge washed out to sea.
Knowing that infrastructure and climate are intertwined, how can we plan investments to both combat and survive our changing climate? Now, as the deadline looms for Congress to renew funding for our highway and transit programs, and negotiations on surface transportation legislation have begun, Democrats have a plan to do just that.
Our country’s transportation sector is now America’s number one source of greenhouse gas emissions. Our current system prioritizes gasoline-powered cars, diesel-powered buses, and other modes of travel that heavily pollute our air. To combat the climate crisis and boost our economy, we should embrace clean transportation technologies, like electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, electrified mass-transit systems, and safe places to walk and bike, to give Americans a range of choices that will be convenient and reduce carbon pollution.
We must also make smart choices when building new infrastructure, because the climate crisis is already starting to take a toll. As ocean temperatures continue to warm and sea levels rise, what were once “once-in-a-century” storms will become far more common. Communities all along the East Coast regularly experience “sunny day flooding,” when roads are inundated during high tides.
This is not just a crisis for the coasts. No matter where you are, you will see or experience firsthand the damage and destruction inflicted by climate change on our infrastructure. Just months ago, Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri experienced the wrath of a “bomb cyclone,” which, followed by rapid snowmelt, unleashed catastrophic flooding that overtook entire communities and interstates.
Given the stakes, we cannot just focus on rebuilding infrastructure that already exists, according to the designs and needs of the past. We must build to meet our present and future needs and challenges.
Here are just a few of our ideas:
Invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure corridors to make owning an electric car at least as convenient as owning a gasoline-powered car;
Provide incentives to states to enact policies to reduce carbon pollution in their transportation systems by putting more electric and fuel-efficient vehicles on the road;
Prioritize the electrification and expansion of mass transit systems;
Require that new federally-funded transportation projects meet climate resiliency standards;
Ensure that disadvantaged and vulnerable communities, including communities of color and indigenous communities ― which are often the most defenseless to the effects of the climate crisis — are a top consideration in these efforts.
We can — and must — do more, but in a divided Congress, these investments would be a meaningful start. That transition will create tens of thousands of jobs, too, as our cars, buses, trucks, and railroads are modernized and new vehicle-charging infrastructure is installed.
As the Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate and the ranking member of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, we will push for a surface transportation bill that reduces carbon pollution, while also making our infrastructure more resilient to superstorms and the everyday impact of our changing climate.
Tom Carper is a U.S. senator from Delaware. Chuck Schumer is a senator from New York and Senate Minority Leader.